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Well, so much for a short respite from sports drama. The All-Star break isn’t just a few days off for Major League Baseball players, but for sports fans and anyone that covers sports, as well. It’s generally one last opportunity to recharge after the NBA and NHL playoffs, and to mentally prepare for NFL training camp and high-leverage baseball games ahead. Instead, Nationals outfielder Juan Soto had to go and make the All-Star break interesting… I know. Poor me, right?
On Saturday, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that Soto rejected the Nationals’ massive contract extension offer of $440 million over 15 years. It’s an unfathomable amount of dough for just about anyone. What’s even harder to grasp for anyone that heard the news is turning down a fortune that falls a few bills shy of the national defense budget of Cuba.
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How news of the contract discussions got to us talking heads in sports media isn’t 100% clear, but Soto’s position is that it didn’t come from him.
“Pretty frustrating, because I try to keep my stuff private,” Soto said at Monday’s All-Star Game media day. (I) don’t try to throw stuff out there. It feels really bad, but at the end of the day we just got to keep playing.”
Adding to the rift (and what is a public relations disaster for the Nationals), the Nationals did not charter a plane for Soto to compete in the Home Run Derby on Monday.
“All I know here is that the Atlanta Braves and Juan Soto played a game yesterday,” said Scott Boras, Soto’s agent. “The Atlanta Braves arrived here five hours earlier than Juan Soto did. You know why? Because their team chartered a plane. Juan Soto had to fly on a commercial flight and wait in an airport for two hours and get here at 1:30 in the morning…”
At least one other team did not arrange for their player’s transportation to the All-Star Game, but for what appear to be very different reasons. The Athletics, who hardly pass for a Major League team at this time (with a total payroll of under $50 million), didn’t charter a flight for pitcher Paul Blackburn. He ended up tagging along with Houston Astros All-Stars who were afforded such accommodations. Whether this is a case of sour grapes from the Nationals or narrative management from Boras, it seems to be Soto who is winning out.
Shortly after, Juan Soto excelled with the spotlight finally shining brightly on him, which hasn’t been the case all season. The Nationals currently hold the worst record in baseball at 31-63, which fuels some of the speculation that he wants out of Washington.
Soto seized the opportunity and put on a show in the Home Run Derby, defeating Jose Ramirez and Albert Pujols before a finals showdown with another budding superstar, Seattle’s 21-year-old centerfielder, Julio Rodriguez. Soto edged out Rodriguez in dramatic fashion, eclipsing his total of 18 with seconds remaining.
So will Juan Soto get moved?
It’s easy to paint Soto as the bad guy in all of this, and that appears to be exactly what someone in the Nationals organization tried to do by leaking the news. It’s not impossible, especially with Soto employing notorious super-agent Boras, that it was his camp that leaked the details. We may never know, but it is considered a pretty egregious breach of ethics to feed details to the media, negotiating tactic or not. Regardless, we know someone tried to spin public perception, which means this relationship has soured and Soto will likely be moved, if not at the August 2 trade deadline, in the offseason.
Soto sure seems to feel as if these rumors came out of nowhere.
“I haven’t talked to anybody to tell me how it changed and what their mindset is,” he said. “A couple weeks ago, they said they would never trade me. And then all these things came out. It feels really uncomfortable. You don’t know what to trust. But at the end of the day, it’s out of my hands.”
Soto still has two “arbitration years” remaining on his contract, meaning the 23-year-old phenom won’t be a free agent until 2025. The Nationals technically control his fate until then. That said, they have seemingly botched their chance to lock up Soto long-term, and are now entertaining trade offers. It seems likely someone is about to pay him even more than the motherlode he had in front of him.
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However, if we just look at this from a dollars and sense perspective, $440 million dollars over 15 years comes out to an average annual value (AAV) of $29.33 million. That’s not exactly chump change, but also would only be the 20th highest salary in all of baseball. Soto knows his worth. He is already among the brightest young stars in the game with two Silver Slugger Awards, two All-Star appearances, an NL batting title and a World Series ring on his resume before his 24th birthday. He projects to be a perennial MVP candidate well into the 2030s.
With baseball contracts being fully guaranteed, $440 million sure would be a nice nest egg for Soto. He actually deserves some credit for declining that security and betting on himself, knowing he can get more, and likely become the highest-paid player in baseball. I have been very critical of spoiled athletes and some elements of the “player empowerment era” in today’s sports landscape, but not when it comes to exploding salaries. Behold, the beauty of capitalism. The market dictates.
The Soto story has predictably revived the never-ending argument that baseball needs a salary cap. Count me in that camp. Count me in the camp that baseball needs a salary floor, as well, as opposed to lining owners’ pockets with even more cash. Either way, that is about competitive balance. I am not going to fault Soto, Boras or anyone else that sees the trend of burgeoning salaries and looks to take advantage.
What’s next for Nationals and Juan Soto?
If Soto is going to be traded (and ultimately sign a long-term extension elsewhere), he is getting hot at the right time, both for him and the Nationals. His batting average for the year is just .250 (well below his career average of .293), but he has had an outstanding July, hitting .409 with 16 RBIs. He’s hit 20 home runs on the year and his penchant for drawing walks gives him the second-best on-base percentage in baseball at .405.
Add these numbers even in a “down” year to his Home Run Derby performance and his media appearances where he presented himself as charismatic and mature, and his stock is skyrocketing. His value, both in terms of trade value and dollars, is climbing.
In terms of the contract, Boras is likely seeking something in the neighborhood of the 12-year, $426 million (AAV: $37.1 million) deal Mike Trout signed with the Angels in 2019. Of course, even owners with the deepest pockets might view Trout as a cautionary tale, as locking up Trout long-term has resulted in little success on the field.
When it comes to who can foot the bill for something in that neighborhood? Well, we can round up the usual suspects. The Mets and the Yankees are prohibitive favorites to land him if a trade should be consummated before the deadline on the sportsbook website Covers.com (+400 and +500, respectively). The Giants, Dodgers and Blue Jays round out the top five. Noticeably way down the list are the suddenly-frugal Red Sox, who also seem ready to let Xander Bogaerts walk this offseason.
Several signs, besides their habits as big spenders, point to the Yankees as Soto’s landing spot. Soto’s showmanship and buttoned-up, “I don’t want to be a problem” personality just feels like a Yankee.
The Yankees, after all, are in the midst of a very public negotiation with Aaron Judge that doesn’t seem to be going well. They could be preparing for the 30-year-old Judge’s departure this offseason and looking to replace his production with a younger outfielder that has played in 76 more games since Soto’s debut in 2018.
Judge’s age and injury history aside, the two parties would appear to just be too far apart on a contract. Judge had some comments of his own during the All-Star festivities that point to him being on his way out.
Hours before the game, ESPN’s Marly Rivera interviewed Judge on his remaining time in New York. Rivera shared a story of a young fan named Jacob, who asked her: “Are you telling me that Aaron Judge may not be a Yankee after this year?” and asked the star outfielder on live TV what he would say to the boy.
“Jacob, buddy, we got a lot of great Yankees on this team, you know, there are a lot of great Yankees [that will] be here for a long time so don’t be upset,” Judge responded. “Hopefully you’ll be a Judge fan for life.”
Hardly an inspiring answer for Yankees fans that will be chomping at the bit for a solution. Perhaps they’ll be pleased to realize Soto is a perfect left-handed complement to Giancarlo Stanton, and a chance to move on from the disastrous Joey Gallo experiment (.164 batting average and already 98 strikeouts this season).
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Feature image: All-Pro Reels on Flickr
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